The Manhattan Project

Dorothy Wilkinson's Interview

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Dorothy worked at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project as a “calutron girl.” After her brother was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was eager to join the war effort. Dorothy discusses how she went directly from high school to Oak Ridge, and was at first intimidated by the mud and the “Wild West” atmosphere. She talks about meeting her husband, Paul, who was her supervisor at Y-12, having children, and how pleasant her life has been at the site.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Dorothy Wilkinson: My name is Dorothy Wilkinson, D-o-r-o-t-h-y W-i-l-k-i-n-s-o-n.

Cindy Kelly: Okay, if you could just tell a little bit about where you were born and how you happened to come Oak Ridge.

Wilkinson: I was born in west Tennessee, which is what I count my home. I came right out of high school when I graduated because I had a brother killed on the Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and I thought that I would like to do something for the war effort. A man came to my high school in west Tennessee, and I took an exam of sorts. I do not remember it too well, but he accepted me. I think that they would accept anything at that time, because they wanted to get everything done.

So I signed up, and I was going to sign up for clerical. But when I got here, which was by train, I did not have enough money to go back that day or I might have left because it was so scary, because it was like a Wild West town. I came in the dirt and right from high school.

I got a job at Y-12, that is where they put me. I was a cubical girl, which I think they call it calutron or something that I worked on, but I did not know what I was doing. I took a six-week course, and they told me exactly how to raise and lower the voltage on these machines that were in front of us.

That is what I did, and I met Paul almost the first day that I came to work. Because Paul is my husband, Paul Wilkinson, and he was my Technical Supervisor. He had about forty women just like me on this floor that were operators. I found out later that it was calutron. I did not know that name, really, because I was not scientific in any way, I just came here to work, and got a job and met my husband. That is why I came to Oak Ridge, really, was to try to find a husband. I wanted to be a mother and that is about my ambition, really, was to be a mother.

So we succeeded, and I married him after three months, I think it was, three months here. We have been here since. I came in ’44 and he was here earlier. He said he fell in love—I fell in love instantly, but I do not think he did. I think it took him a few months. His mother came down to visit to look me over, and I think I passed the test as somebody that might have a lot of babies. They wanted babies because they were an old couple, and they did not have any grandchildren. We had four children.

At first we lived in the one bedroom flattop on Altoona, which is completely gone now, that street. Every time you had a baby, you got to move up to another bedroom, so we went from a one-bedroom flattop to a two-bedroom flattop when we had the second child. Then, we had the third—not quite the third but we moved to a B house, which was on Pennsylvania Avenue and is still here today. And then we had one more child and we moved to 37 Outer. We got into D by then, so we figured we would not have any more children. There were three or four bedrooms in that D.

We had a good time and we raised four children. They are all out of this town. I mean, none of them stayed here, but they are near. One is in Nashville, and one is in Knoxville. Another is a schoolteacher in New Jersey where Paul came from, which is very strange that my daughter went back to where Paul came from originally. We just have enjoyed grandchildren a lot and having grandchildren.

I really never really wanted to work anymore after I got into the calutron and I worked for a while. I dated a lot, because I was kind of restricted back in my little town of Hornbeak, Tennessee. So then I just quit work. I guess I was pregnant when I quit, because I only worked about three or four months, it seems like to me, it may be five. We raised our children, and we have been very happy in Oak Ridge, and so we stayed. We never left Oak Ridge.

Kelly: Were all the operators of the cubicles young women?

Wilkinson: Yes.

Kelly: Can you describe—?

Wilkinson: They were the high schoolers that came that did not know a lot of stuff, but they knew enough to raise and lower voltages, which we were taught in the school at the Chapel on the Hill – you have heard that expression – where we went to these schools and learned. It was very muddy outside and we did not have very many good things, but we did not miss them. I mean, we were young and in love and stuff like that, so we enjoyed our time in Oak Ridge. I guess we will stay here till we leave this world; I hope so, anyway.

Kelly: In this newspaper article, there is a picture of a toddler. Is that your daughter?

Wilkinson: That is my first child. She lived in that flattop. She is now a fifty-something year old woman, and she has two children. But we meet once a year for reunions. That is the sad part, we hardly see any child until our yearly reunion where we try to get together. We have moved into the retirement center now, and we like that, except maybe the food. I should not say that, probably. Anyway, we like it there. And they clean, you know. We have housekeeping, and we have all the needs that we need met.

We still have a little lake house that we go to for some time during the summer. The kids come in and out. My son lives in Knoxville, so I see more of him than the other three girls. We have a second girl that lives in Washington, DC, and then a third child that lives over in Old Hickory, near Nashville.

We have had a really good, full life, I think. I have never been worried about the bomb or anything, because I had Paul to tell me everything, because he was more scientific than I was. So he could tell me anything.

We loved the flattop, because we just had one little baby there, and it was kind of like the country way back when. We had boardwalks, we did not have streets or sidewalks. So we enjoyed it, the early days of Oak Ridge, really.

This is a picture of the flattop where we lived on Altoona Lane, which is no longer in Oak Ridge, as they closed it. It is near Alhambra, which is still going, up the street from it. However, I guess nobody would want a one-bedroom flattop anyway now, because of family size and so forth.

Kelly: Can you describe how large it is?

Wilkinson: It was three rooms, kind of, like a living room and kitchen combined, and a bedroom. I guess it would be two rooms really. We had a warm morning coal stove that blew up now and then, which was kind of scary. But we had a good time there.

This is a picture of my daughter, Adrienne. She was our firstborn. She is sixteen months old here. And I have a picture of her and my sister with the second place we lived, I might bring you that picture.

She is sitting on one of the boardwalks that was in front. They had this coal box out by your walk. We did not have many places to sit outside, because our two-bedroom flattop was very little, so she sat on the walk. The neighbors were all in a circle, and that was on Alger Road, which is now defunct except for the one—

Paul Wilkinson: No, Alger is still there.

Wilkinson: I know it, but you were not supposed to do this. Anyway, there were flattops all in a little circle on Alger Road, and we were right by the main road that would service. Everything that we needed was brought to that place for us. Our coal was delivered on time, and we did not have to order anything. If you needed something fixed, you could call somebody and they would come and fix it.

It was a good time to be in Oak Ridge, because we had to have badges, resident badges. That was one thing, that nobody could come and see you without calling first because they had to have a badge to get in the gate. We had three gates or four, so they had to have a badge to get in to visit. That was good, because my mother-in-law could not come.

She is dead now, that is why I can say this, but she would come for long visits from Montclair, New Jersey, and she would stay for at least a month sometime. It just drove us crazy, because she wanted to take charge. She was a nurse, and she had to take charge.

We went to Europe one time, 1960, and we left the kids with both grandmothers. I mean, one came. The kids got mad at her because she was a disciplinarian. She wanted them to do everything and eat the right food and not watch TV. So anyway, it got kind of sort of bad after a while; they were glad when she left and went back to New Jersey.

But let me see, I think the second child, Wendy – I do not have a picture here of her – but she went right out of school to college in Boulder, Colorado. She went to University of Colorado, and then she settled finally, in Washington, DC. She has a good job and she is healthy. She never married, she is a dog lover, and so she has got two beautiful dogs. She is happy.

Then my son, as I said, is in Knoxville. Tom Wilkinson, he works for the Cerebral Palsy Adopt.  I think he wanted to be his own boss, so he chose this field. It is not very well paid, but he does not mind. He loves people, and he takes care of these boys to get them to school and dressed in the morning and so forth.

Then my third child, Libby, is over near Nashville, and she is a software trainer. All of them went to school and to college, which I was very thankful for because I did not have college. So I was proud of that, that was my aim, and my accomplishment was motherhood.